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By-elections - like a country wedding where everybody joins in the party

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Fianna Fail candidate Ivan Connaughton canvassing with party leader Micheal Martin and senator Terry Leyden in Ballyleague, Co. Roscommon last friday.

Fianna Fail candidate Ivan Connaughton canvassing with party leader Micheal Martin and senator Terry Leyden in Ballyleague, Co. Roscommon last friday.

Fine Gael by-election candidate Maura Hopkins talks to Fr. John McManus while canvassing in Ballyleague, Co. Roscommon last friday.

Fine Gael by-election candidate Maura Hopkins talks to Fr. John McManus while canvassing in Ballyleague, Co. Roscommon last friday.

The only female candidate in the Roscommon/South Leitrim Bye Election, Maura Hopkins, pictured at a coffee morning for women onboard  the Moon River Cruiser, Carrick on Shannon, Co. Leitrim

The only female candidate in the Roscommon/South Leitrim Bye Election, Maura Hopkins, pictured at a coffee morning for women onboard the Moon River Cruiser, Carrick on Shannon, Co. Leitrim

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Fianna Fail candidate Ivan Connaughton canvassing with party leader Micheal Martin and senator Terry Leyden in Ballyleague, Co. Roscommon last friday.

It is just past one in the morning when Micheal Martin returns from the Fianna Fail monster rally at the Percy French Hotel in, oh dear, Strokestown.

Such was the turnout and enthusiasm, all that was missing was pitchforks and blazing sods of turf.

As the pallid FF leader enters the Abbey Hotel in Roscommon town there is plenty of enthusiasm there too, as a country wedding and all that entails is in full swing.

The Fianna Fail leader gazes for a brief, wistful moment at the partying farmers and comely maidens before heading for the bedroom.

It's not easy being the new de Valera, particularly when a lot of your own colleagues are sifting, weighing, measuring and wondering if it is time to change the manager before it is too late.

These factors may explain why Micheal is throwing everything at Roscommon as it soon becomes clear the candidate, Ivan Connaughton, is a harmless sort of fellow who is perfectly qualified for a 20-year Dail career of filling out representations for cattle tags.

By contrast, the FF leader is a star on the campaign trail as women race over to be photographed with him.

Unlike Enda, women trust and like Micheal.

There is laughter and delight as he heads into the credit union to be photographed with a local woman whose husband is called Enda Kenny, before he heads over for a long chat with the nice lady dead-heading flowers for the Tidy Towns.

Micheal likes neatly cut verges and tidy streets.

Meanwhile, Roscommon, unlike the rest of the nation, is absorbed by the election in a similar manner to the way everyone attends a country wedding, whether they are invited or not.

Just outside the train station, a cheery local who last possessed a full set of teeth around the same time as his Ford Cortina was built in 1976 issues a cheery bellow of "ah bejaysus, the big media is here" as I struggle down the town.

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Nothing remains secret in Roscommon for long.

And in the case of Fine Gael, the qualities of their candidate Maura Hopkins will certainly not remain hidden under a bushel.

Since the departures of Olwyn Enright and Mary Coughlan, Irish politics, sadly, has not had an official 'lovely girl'.

However, were Father Ted to be re-incarnated, the rosy-cheeked Hopkins, who when dealing with the punters laughs in a 'lovely' girlish way every 45 seconds on average, would win any 'lovely girl' competition hands down.

The rest of the country, or the media at least, might be fixated on the Budget and cronyism.

In Fine Gael, though, the collective, wistful sigh is one of 'ah God, she's a lovely girl, the farmers in the marts do love to see her arri ving canvassing'. Like all 'lovely girls' there is more to Ms Hopkins than a laugh and a shapely dress and should Enda have an old Seanad seat coming soon, he could do worse than to recognise talent for once.

Back in the deserted streets of Strokestown, the grizzled Labour candidate John Kelly is certainly not a 'lovely girl'.

However, as he asks voters - whose range of concerns vary from being blackballed at the local golf club to securing a washing machine to "give me a good scratch now, a straight one" - Kelly senses that a modest revival is heading Labour's way.

The warmth of the electorate for the long-standing community activist is epitomised by one encounter where an old dear says, "God love you, John, you're a long time trying now".

By contrast, the measure of the ongoing difficulties Micheal Martin must face is that even core FF supporters tell him "I'm FF to the backbone and I'm not embarrassed to say it".

For now, however, the intensity of FF's need may carry them over the line.

Maura Hopkins might be the best candidate, but FG's 'lovely girl' is in the wrong party under the wrong Taoiseach at the wrong time.

Outside of the big two, geography will halt the surge of the Leitrim-based Sinn Fein candidate, Martin Kenny, while it is far more possible now than two months ago that Labour could contend.

Some even believe that the mini-Ming Independent candidate Michael Fitzmaurice may be a dark horse.

However, the possibilities of the hospital candidate John McDermott are dismissed by one observer who simply notes: ''he only had 20 protesters with him when Kenny came''.

Meanwhile in the very different world of Dublin South West, next week will teach us a great deal about SF's capacity to breach the threshold of acceptability.

The drizzle of discontent currently falling into the sunny court of King Enda could turn into a downpour if FG experience a Labour in Meath East-style meltdown.

Much interest will centre upon the Reform Alliance adoptee Ronan McMahon, while after 20 years of hard Labour, Pat Rabbitte will fight tooth and nail to ensure the working classes will not fall under the rheumy spell of the Sinn Fein nihilistic Scientologists.


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